September 20, 2022 - The trade group representing coal mining operators has asked federal regulators to take action regarding erratic rail service, particularly in the east on CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.
Mines have had to curtail production due to poor rail service that’s only getting worse even as demand for coal rises, the National Mining Association told the Surface Transportation Board in a letter last week.
“While mines are running full speed ahead, the same cannot be said for rail, and our members desperately need relief,” the mining association said.
A CSX Transportation empty coal train rumbles past the C&O-style cantilever signal at WD Cabin on the CSX’s Big Sandy Subdivision near Burnaugh, Ky., in May 2020.
Photo: Chase Gunnoe
Empty CSX and NS hopper trains arrive hours or days late, one customer said in a National Mining Association survey. Some mining companies have brought in third parties to handle switching and loading of trains at their facilities.
“It is critical for the Board to further hold Class I railroads accountable and to provide additional relief. The NMA urges the Board to take additional action to confront these ongoing service problems that cripple the U.S. supply chains,” the association wrote.
CSX and NS say they’re working to ease ongoing crew shortages.
“CSX is reviewing the letter and intends to provide a response. We always appreciate hearing from our customers. However, the commentary provided in the NMA letter is without attribution and anecdotal, making it difficult to resolve issues in order to improve service,” spokeswoman Cindy Schild says. “Staffing shortages have been the root cause of the service issues experienced in certain regions of CSX’s network. CSX is working diligently to improve service and we are pursuing every reasonable option to increase train-and-engine (T&E) employee hiring and retention. CSX’s average daily active T&E population and availability numbers have shown steady improvement as a result of our hiring and retention efforts.”
CSX has reached three of its six performance metrics targets, and unit train on-time performance “remains strong and above target levels,” the railroad says. Last week 94% of CSX coal trains arrived within 24 hours of the original estimated time of arrival, according to the latest data the railroad reported to the STB.
NS says it’s working to improve service and ease crew shortages.
“We’ve been transparent about service challenges and we’re aggressively addressing them,” NS spokesman Connor Spielmaker says. “In-house, we’ve been offering hiring bonuses to attract new conductor-trainees and have raised wages for them. For our current employees, we are offering availability and referral bonuses, and are signing new labor agreements that will result in wage increases of 24%. We also introduced a new operating plan to simplify the way freight moves across our network and improve fluidity.”
NS does not report unit train on-time performance figures to the STB, noting that its bulk operations are unscheduled.
Demand for thermal coal, both domestically and in Europe, has been rising due to the high price of natural gas used to generate electricity. Overall coal volume on U.S. railroads is up 3.5% for the year to date, according to the Association of American Railroads.